Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fall of Kars - October 30, 1920

The Turkish nationalist movement headed by Mustafa Kemal, with headquarters in Ankara, did not recognize the Treaty of Sevres signed by the legal government of the Ottoman Empire on August 10, 1920. Barely a month later, on September 23, Turkish armed forces under the command of General Kiazim Karabekir started an attack, without mediating a war declaration, against the Republic of Armenia. A month later, again, the fortress of Kars—the most important bulwark of the Southern Caucasus—would fall almost without a fight to the advancing troops.

Kars, the capital of an Armenian medieval kingdom ruled by a branch of the Bagratuni family, had changed hands several times over the past hundred years. After being briefly occupied by Russian troops in 1855 during the Crimea War of 1854-1856, it was occupied again during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877 and annexed to the Russian Empire as a result of the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. It fell to the advancing Turkish troops in March 1918 and was re-conquered by the troops of the newly born Republic of Armenia after the Turkish retreat following the end of World War I.

The young commander of the fortress, Col. Mazmanian, gave the order of attack to his soldiers, who refused to follow his orders and, instead, deserted. Confronted with the shameful desertion, Mazmanian took his own life with his revolver in the sight of his soldiers. According to the memoirs of Karabekir and other sources, the Kemalist soldiers and the Turkish, Kurdish, Muslim, and Armenian Bolshevik rebels occupied the entire city in three hours, took hundreds of Armenian officers and soldiers as prisoners, seized an enormous quantity of war material (cannons, projectiles, weapons, and bullets) and massacred thousands of people among the civil population; in 1920-1921, the Turks would kill a total of 20,000 Armenians in the city and the province of Kars. Years later, Garegin Nejdeh, who headed the successful defense of Zangezur against the attacks of Azerbaijanis and Bolsheviks from 1919-1921, would write: “The shame of Kars is not only of the government of the Republic of Armenia, but of the entire Armenian people. The armies measure their forces and clash, but the nations are the winners or the losers. Under the walls of Kars, not only the Armenian soldier and the general were defeated, but also the entire Armenian people, lacking spirit of fight and bravery."

A general view of modern Kars with the central Armenian church in the foreground and the fortress in the background.
The effects of the fall of Kars would be catastrophic. Despite Armenian heroic resistance in other places, two weeks later, Alexandropol (now Gumri) fell to the Turks, which practically reached the outskirts of Yerevan from the west. The cabinet of Prime Minister Hamo Ohanjanian fell, and Simon Vratzian became Prime Minister of a coalition cabinet, which lasted scarcely a week. On November 29, 1920, Bolshevik forces entered Armenia from the east, and the Armenian government, confronting the menace of destruction, chose the lesser of two evils and power was transferred to the Communists on December 2. Armenia would enter the Soviet Union in 1922 as part of the Federative Republic of Transcaucasia.

The trauma of the fall was masterfully addressed by poet Yeghishe Charents, a native of Kars, in his only novel, Yerkir Nayiri (Land of Nayiri), published in 1926. The fall of Kars still remains a polemical one in the historiography of the Republic of Armenia.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Death of Gomidas Vartabed - October 22, 1935

Pen and ink drawing by Minas Minasian.
Gomidas Vartabed was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, but he was also a victim of it, for he was never able to recover from the traumatic effects of his short-termed deportation.

Soghomon Soghomonian was born in Kütahya (Gudina), in western Turkey, on October 8, 1869. His family was Turkish-speaking. He lost his mother when he was one year old and his father when he was ten. In 1881 he was taken to Holy Etchmiadzin, where he entered the Kevorkian Seminary.

His exceptional voice and musical abilities attracted special attention. He studied Armenian musical notes and religious music, collected popular songs, and made his first attempts at composing. In 1893 he graduated and was designated music teacher and choirmaster of the cathedral. One year later he was ordained a celibate priest, and named Gomidas in honor of Catholicos Gomidas, a musician and poet of the 7th century. In 1895, he was elevated to the rank of archimandrite (vartabed).

He pursued musical studies in Berlin from 1896-1899. He returned to Etchmiadzin from 1899-1910. He collected close to 3,000 popular songs and dances, which he mostly arranged for choir versions. He presented his arrangements of Armenian popular and religious music in Paris (1906) with great success.

His musical programs included folk and sacred music, but his actions and ideas upset a conservative faction in Etchmiadzin. After Catholicos Mgrdich I (Khrimian Hairig) passed away in 1907, Gomidas’ situation became more problematic. He wrote that he could not breathe and was suffocating in Etchmiadzin. His formal request to become a hermit and continue his work was denied, and finally he decided to move to Constantinople.

He created the 300-member “Kusan” Choir and gave concerts in various places in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. Five of its members (Parsegh Ganachian, Mihran Toumajan, Vartan Sarxian, Vagharshag Srvantzdian, and Haig Semerjian) took classes of musical theory with him and came to be known as the “five Gomidas students.”

In April 1915, Gomidas was arrested with more than 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders and exiled to Chankiri. His behavior changed along the exile route. A few weeks later, while officiating at a church service, word came that he would be sent back to Constantinople with a few other notables.

The return was very difficult for him. His friends could not understand his odd behavior and considered him mad, committing him to the Turkish Military Psychiatric Hospital. Many of his compositions and notes were dispersed and lost.

In 1919 he was sent to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life, first in a private psychiatric hospital and then in the Villejuif asylum, where he passed away. In 1936 his body was sent to Armenia and buried in the pantheon named after him, where famous personalities found their final rest. The Music Conservatory of Yerevan is named after him, as is the state chamber quartet.

Gomidas was justly termed the Father of Armenian Music, as he rescued from oblivion more than 4,000 village songs and melodies, and set the foundation for the scientific study of Armenian music. He also wrote pieces for piano and songs, fragments for comedies and operas. His version of the Holy Mass is a classic work, used to this day by the Armenian Church.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Birth of Stepan Shahumian - October 13, 1878

After the independence of Armenia and Karabagh, neither the city of Stepanavan, in the northern region of Lori, which was severely damaged during the earthquake of 1988, nor Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Mountainous (Nagorno) Karabagh, changed their names, even though they had been renamed after a famous communist revolutionary.

Stepan Shahumian was born in Tiflis to a working family. He studied at the Royal School in his hometown and then followed with university studies in St. Petersburg and Riga (1898-1902). He was attracted by Marxism in early 1900. He graduated from the philosophy department of Alexander Humboldt University in Germany in 1905, while being actively involved in politics following the line of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian Social Democratic Party.

Shahumian returned to the Caucasus in 1905 and became a leader first in Tiflis and then in Baku from 1907, both actively in the field and as an editor and polemicist. After being exiled to Astrakhan in 1912, he returned to Baku in 1914. He was arrested in March 1916 and exiled to Saratov, and liberated only after the February Revolution of 1917.

He returned to Baku once again, and led the Soviet of Workers and Villagers, which in November 1917 took control of the city. Shahumian was designated Extraordinary Commissar for the Caucasus in December. The Turkish army expanded its military campaign on the Caucasian front in late March 1918; encouraged, the Azerbaijani Musavat Party stepped up its anti-Soviet work and attempted to seize Baku to establish its own regime. After the crushing of the revolt, the Soviets took full control of the city government and established an alliance of Bolsheviks, Left Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks (Social Democrats), and Armenian Revolutionary Federation members, chaired by Shahumian, which was known as the Baku Commune.

The Bolsheviks clashed with the A.R.F. and the Mensheviks over the involvement of British forces, which the latter two welcomed. In either case, Shahumian was under direct orders from Moscow to refuse any and all aid offered by the British. However, in July the alliance broke and a new government replaced the Commune by the Central Caspian Dictatorship, with an alliance of Right Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and A.R.F. members; British forces temporarily entered Baku to abandon it later.

On July 31, the 26 commissars attempted the evacuation of Bolshevik armed forces by sailing over to Astrakhan, but the ships were captured by the military vessels of the Dictatorship two weeks later. They were arrested and placed in Baku prison. The city fell to Turkish forces, despite the heroic resistance of the Armenian population, which executed the massacre of 15,000 to 20,000 Armenians.

Amidst the confusion, Shahumian and his fellow commissars either escaped or were released on September 14. They boarded a ship to Krasnovodsk, where upon arrival they were arrested by anti-Bolshevik elements. In the end, on the night of September 20, Stepan Shahumian and the other 25 Baku commissars were executed by a firing squad on a remote location on the Trans-Caspian railway. Together with Shahumian and various Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and Russians, six other Armenians perished: Arsen Amirian, Suren Hovsepian, Armenak Borian, Baghdasar Avakian, Aram Kostandian, and Tateos Amirian.

A statue of Stepan Shahumyan located in central Yerevan.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Birth of Vazken I, Catholicos of All Armenians - October 3, 1908

Portrait of Catholicos Vazken I, painted by Martiros Saryan
The 130th Catholicos of All Armenians, Vazken I, had one of the longest tenures in the history of the Armenian Church, almost forty years. During his reign, he presided over the rebirth of the Armenian Church in the former Soviet Union, after its near destruction in the Stalin period.

He was born in Bucharest (Romania) on October 3, 1908. His father was a shoemaker and his mother a schoolteacher. His family moved to Odessa during World War I, where young Levon Baljian received his elementary education. After returning to Romania, he studied in the Misakian-Kesimian Armenian school of Bucharest and, from 1924-1926, in the higher school of trade in Bucharest. He taught in the Armenian schools of Bucharest from 1929-1943. He graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Bucharest in 1936 and from the section of applied pedagogy in 1937. He also published a monthly in Armenian, Herg, in 1937-1938.

His shift from philosophy to theology led him to study theology and divinity of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Athens. The Diocesan Council of the Armenian diocese of Romania decided to send him to Athens, where he was ordained a celibate priest (vartabed) in September 1943. Elected locum tenens of the diocese in November, he later became primate (1947-1955). He was ordained bishop in 1951 and became simultaneously primate of the Armenian diocese of Bulgaria in 1954.

After the death of Catholicos Kevork VI in 1954, he was elected Catholicos of All Armenians in 1955. He managed to assert some degree of independence for the Armenian Church, especially after the 1960s, and developed a wide activity of construction. Many churches were rebuilt during his tenure, such as the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, the surrounding churches of St. Hripsime, St. Gayane, St. Shoghagat, the monasteries of Khor Virap and Geghard, etcetera. He also built several important buildings in the monastery of Holy Etchmiadzin: the monument to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, the fountain-memorial dedicated to Khrimian Hayrig, the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum, and others.

He published several works, such as “The Armenian of Musa Dagh in the Work of Franz Werfel” and “Khrimian Hayrig as an Educator.” Thanks to his efforts, various important Armenian manuscripts were saved and offered to the Matenadaran, the library of Armenian manuscripts of Yerevan. Among them were the Vehamayr Gospel (on behalf of his mother), which was used after the independence of Armenia by the presidents of the country to give their oath.

During 1988, Vazken I voiced his concerns and his support for the cause of the Armenians of Karabagh. He restored the diocese of Artsakh (Karabagh) of the Armenian Church in 1989 and started the renovation and reopening of various churches and monasteries of the region.

He was elected an honorary member of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia in 1991 and was the first to receive the title of National Hero in Armenia (1994). The Catholicos passed away on August 18, 1994.

The seminary of Sevan bears his name, the same as a school in Vanadzor. Two statues remember him in the Vazkenian seminary of Sevan (2008) and in Holy Etchmiadzin (2010).

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Foundation of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party - October 1, 1921

The Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADL; in Armenian, Ramgavar Azadagan Goosagtsootioon) was founded in Constantinople on October 1, 1921. It is considered the continuation of the first Armenian party, the Armenagan Organization, which was created in 1885 in Van.

The Democratic Liberal Party was the result of the alliance of four liberal and conservative parties from Western and Eastern Armenia: the Armenagan Organization, which had lost its headquarters in Van after the genocide; the Armenian Constitutional Democratic Party (1907-1921), which had acted within the frame of constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire after the Ottoman Revolution of 1908; the Reorganized Hunchakian Party, a right-wing split of the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party after 1896; and the Armenian Popular Party, founded in 1917 in Tiflis (Tbilisi) after the model of the Russian Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) party.

The party advocated liberalism and capitalism, while the other two political parties, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Hunchakian Party, had a left-leaning platform. For the next seventy years, the action of the Democratic Liberal Party, as well as of the other two, was limited to the Diaspora, since Armenian political parties were banned by the Communist regime in Soviet Armenia. Its position, nevertheless, has consistently been one of support for Armenia, regardless of the regime or government in charge.

The party established its main headquarters in the Middle East (Egypt and later Lebanon), with branches in various communities, particularly Syria, Greece, France, the United States, Canada, and Argentina, publishing newspapers and magazines in some of them. Nowadays, it has the following media in the Diaspora: Zartonk (Beirut), Arev (Cairo), Nor Ashkharh (Athens), Abaka (Montreal), Nor Or (Pasadena), The Armenian Mirror-Spectator (Boston), Sardarabad (Buenos Aires). It has had representation in the Lebanese Parliament since 2000 as a member of the Future Movement chaired by the late prime minister Rafik Hariri (now called March 14 Alliance).

After the independence of Armenia and the disappearance of the one-party system, the Democratic Liberal Party of Armenia was founded in 1991 as a local counterpart to the Diasporan party. Various rifts within the party caused the formation of a second party, the Armenakan-Democratic Liberal Party, in 2009. Both parties were unified in 2012 under the name “Democratic Liberal Party (Armenia).” The newspaper Azg, one of the most respected press organs in Armenia, was founded by the party in 1992, but in the last few years became an independent, non-partisan newspaper.